FAB 4. Bucs Could Get A Steal With Shepherd

With just two interior defensive linemen on the current roster – Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy and unproven Stevie Tu’ikolovatu – defensive tackle has become a huge area of need for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The hope here is that veteran Clinton McDonald gets re-signed to provide depth at both the nose tackle and three-technique positions as well as leadership due to the fact that the Bucs will likely spend a draft pick on a defensive tackle.

Fort Hays State DT Nathan Shepherd - Photo courtesy of FHSU
Fort Hays State DT Nathan Shepherd – Photo courtesy of FHSU

While Tampa Bay has an interest in Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea, who could be the team’s first-round pick, there are other players the team likes, including Virginia Tech’s Tim Settle, who could be a late first- or early second-round pick. One player the Bucs need to like is Fort Hays State defensive tackle Nathan Shepherd.

At 6-foot-5, 300 pounds, Shepherd has grown man size and grown man strength. At the Senior Bowl, the small school wonder showed he had grown man moves, too, before breaking his hand during the second practice.

Heading into the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine, Shepherd is viewed as a Day 3 pick, likely carrying a fourth- or fifth-round grade. If Shepherd impresses athletically in Indianapolis, he could move into Day 2 consideration because he was the most dominant defensive lineman in Mobile, Ala. before leaving the Senior Bowl with his hand injury.

The biggest knock on Shepherd is obviously the level of competition he faced. The Bucs have had mixed results with small school players over the last couple of decades. Tampa Bay selected East Tennessee State cornerback Donnie Abraham in the third round of the 1996 NFL Draft, and signed receiver and return specialist Karl Williams and guard Jorge Diaz from Texas A&M-Kingsville as undrafted free agents in 1997. All three contributed to the Bucs making a playoff run during the Tony Dungy years.

The Bucs were unlucky with a couple of small school picks in the Jon Gruden era with wide receiver Larry Brackins, a fifth-round pick from Pearl River Community College, and defensive tackle Greg Peterson, a fifth-round pick from North Carolina Central in 2006. Those two players couldn’t transition to the NFL and never amounted to anything.

Tampa Bay has fared better recently with small school selections like Hobart offensive lineman Ali Marpet in the second round in 2015, and defensive end Noah Spence from Eastern Kentucky in the second round and cornerback Ryan Smith from North Carolina Central in the fourth round in 2016.

Shepherd, a native of Ontario, Canada, will take one of the most unconventional paths to the NFL and has a story that is steeped in perseverance. He attended Simon Fraser University as an undersized linebacker in 2012, but was told to gain weight and move to the defensive line. I spoke with Shepherd at the Senior Bowl back in January.

“I was playing linebacker originally at 205, and my coaches sat down with me and said if you want to play at the next level you’re going to have to move defensive line,” Shepherd said. “They didn’t feel I was going to be able to compete athletically. That was the transition. I moved to defensive end and it was a world of hurt for me. It really helped build my character. I had to put on weight because there was no way I was going to do this for four years without more weight. The following year I started at defensive tackle at 250 pounds. I used that season’s highlight tape to get me to Fort Hays State.”

Fort Hays State DT Nathan Shepherd - Photo courtesy of FHSU
Fort Hays State DT Nathan Shepherd – Photo courtesy of FHSU

But Shepherd wouldn’t go straight from Simon Frasier in British Columbia to Fort Hays State in the small town of Hays, Kansas without a few detours.

After the 2012 season, Shepherd faced some financial hardships and wasn’t able to get on scholarship at that time. He withdrew from the program and stayed in British Columbia where he worked at a plant nursery and later worked in electrical construction.

In 2014, Shepherd made his way back to Ontario and moved back in with his family and got a job at a printing factory where he made beer cartons during 12-hour shifts from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. or from 7:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m., mixing in workouts either before or after his shifts. Shepherd befriended Paul Watkins, who helped train him out of Toronto. Watkins told Shepherd that he could get drafted into the NFL if he worked out hard and got back into college football.

“I appreciated his confidence in me because he was telling me I was going to be an NFL Draft pick when not only was I not with a team, I wasn’t on scholarship and didn’t have money to get into a school. No one was looking at me. I wasn’t enrolled anywhere. Yet he told me I was going to be a draft pick. That was really surreal.”

What also was surreal was a chance meeting with former NFL wide receiver Nate Burleson, a Canadian, who played for Minnesota, Seattle and Detroit in his 11-year career before joining NFL Network as a host of Good Morning Football and CBS’ NFL Today.

“I was working in a night club as a bouncer in British Columbia after I had left the team and I was down on my luck,” Shepherd said. “I was working in Pierre’s Champagne Lounge in downtown Vancouver. My boss was a friend of Nate Burleson, and my job that night was to chaperone Nate and his friends around and make sure they got back to their hotel at the end of the night. Nate asked me if I played football and told me I was going to make it to the league one day. Again, that meant a lot to me because little did he know that I wasn’t with a team then. He told me to keep grinding and keep working and that I would make it one day.”

Those words helped fuel Shepherd’s return to the gridiron. After a two-year hiatus, Shepherd took steps to get back to playing college football with the hopes of making it to the NFL.

Fort Hays State DT Nathan Shepherd - Photo courtesy of FHSU
Fort Hays State DT Nathan Shepherd – Photo courtesy of FHSU

“I took junior college classes at Northeast Texas Community College online to make it easier to transfer,” Shepherd said. “I was saving up money and I was up to 315 pounds at that time and there were some junior colleges I was looking at in the Midwest because I thought I would have to get re-scouted. One of them reached out to Al McCray at Fort Hays State and said that I didn’t need to go to a junior college.”

Fort Hays State had three senior offensive linemen, so there wasn’t room for Shepherd to be put on scholarship and he had to walk on. In 2015 he played spring football and was finally put on scholarship and played for the first time since 2012 in the fall.

In 2015, Shepherd was a third-team All-American as he finished his first college season in three years with 69 tackles, five tackles for loss, three sacks and two blocked kicks. As a junior, Shepherd posted 61 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, three sacks and two forced fumbles. Facing constant double teams, Shepherd recorded only 38 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and four sacks, but was a second-team All-American and the MIAA Defensive Player of the Year award. He also played some fullback on offense.

Those stats were found on NFL.com on his draft profile, which also lists David Onyemata as his NFL comparable. Onyemata, who made it to the NFL via the East-West Shrine Game two years ago, was a fourth-round pick by New Orleans in 2016.

The 6-foot-4, 300-pound Onyemata is similarly built, but doesn’t have the strength, movement and penetration ability that Shepherd does. Shepherd is a raw, developmental player that needs good coaching and some time to improve before being pressed into regular duty. It certainly wouldn’t hurt the Bucs to use an early pick on a defensive tackle who is more NFL-ready, and then come back in the middle rounds and draft Shepherd.

McDonald just turned 31 in January, and McCoy turned 30 last Sunday. Drafting and developing a future starter like Shepherd in perhaps the third or fourth round and having him learn under two accomplished pros like McDonald and McCoy and new defensive line coach Brentson Buckner will only accelerate his learning curve. Right now, Shepherd operates like a bull in a china shop and needs to understand the nuances of the game as well as refine his techniques.

But make no mistake. He’s definitely a bull. Shepherd needs to work on his pad level, but he showed on film and at the Senior Bowl that he has the power to penetrate and the rare lateral quickness to easily turn and pursue the quarterback or the running back – and that’s a good start.

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Scott Reynolds is in his 24th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his son's Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: [email protected]
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Bucsfan1983
2 years ago

Good Fab 5 SR!

Sign me up for signing Ryan Jensen and Kyle Fuller!!

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Ken Grant
2 years ago

“Anytime you force a pick – anytime you force a pick – because of a need, you run a greater risk of it not working out. I’ve seen that happen a lot of times.”

THIS THIS THIS THIS THIS

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slaythembucs
2 years ago
Reply to  Ken Grant

Yet we may end up doing a the same thing!

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macabee
2 years ago

Free Agency Strategy *Bucs projected cap space for 2018 per OverTheCap (OTC) is 70.5mil. Additional Buc veterans expected to be cut – Ayers 6.0mil, Sweezy 5.2mil and Hawley 2.5mil = savings of 13.7mil + 70.5mil = approx. 84.2mil cap. This will change every time a player is cut, added, extended, or restructured. I believe this is the year the Bucs must make most of their team improvements through free agency. This administration does not have the time to develop drafted players that will make an immediate difference. I estimate they will spend 40 to 45mil of a projected cap more… Read more »

MudManVA
2 years ago
Reply to  macabee

Mac-

I agree Marpet should go back to guard, and the highest priorities should he Norwell & Jensen. That would shore up the interior of the OL.

Target 1 top CB & 1 RB.

I would also look at a trade for Bennett from Seattle (which should be a lower middle round pick).

focus on Defense & 1 top RB in the draft.

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MudManVA
2 years ago
Reply to  MudManVA

INDIANAPOLIS — The Seattle Seahawks are shopping Pro Bowl defensive lineman Michael Bennett in trade talks, a source tells ESPN.

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Freeman Strickland
2 years ago
Reply to  macabee

It is a shame that the Bucs left cap money in the bank last year that would have bought more than it will this year. The Bucs had the money to go after LT Andrew Whitworth and DE Calaiis Campbell. They “pinched pennies” and passed on two Pro Bowl players. It is hard to see who is worth spending the money on this year who will have Pro Bowl impact.

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Will Moffatt
2 years ago

Big question I have is Fab 2. “head coach Bill Belichick wasn’t convinced that he was a top-flight cornerback and instead of signing him to a long-term contract extension, the Patriots signed free agent Stephon Gilmore to a five-year, $65 million deal. New England tendered Butler, who was a restricted free agent, a one-year deal with first-round draft compensation, and there was even talk about New Orleans either signing him to an offer sheet or trading for him prior to the 2017 season. The fact that Belichick considered that spoke volumes” Could you not say the same thing about Norwell?… Read more »

Pete Wood
2 years ago

Most of the Bucs misses in free agency were due to character flaws and a lack of work ethic. I don’t care how talented a player is. I don’t want to sign him if there are any red flags in either of those areas.

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matador
2 years ago
Reply to  Pete Wood

That applies in part to draft picks as well in cases like ASJ and Donovan Smith and Martin (not to mention Freeman and Talib and others in years past).

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Jonathan Goodfellow
2 years ago

If Chubb or Barkley are available at #4, would the Bucs consider a trade with Cleveland?

Potentially giving up a 3rd and a 5th (according to the draft chart I used this looks right). These two players are legit and I think the drop off is significant after them.

Yes I know the Bucs got holes to fill, but with the right pieces added in FA. I think I would consider this.

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Pete Wood
2 years ago

I hear you, but I’d rather trade down with the Bills. The Bucs have more needs than picks as it is. A trade with Buffalo could net us two more bites at the apple.

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FLBoy84
2 years ago
Reply to  Pete Wood

It’s a tough choice. Two more bites at the apple, but they aren’t the same quality apples that are at #7.

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Jonathan Goodfellow
2 years ago
Reply to  Pete Wood

I am not too sure where I stand, I think either would be good. I do not like the thought of us staying put at 7 though if Barkely, Chubb, and Nelson are gone. I dont think Vea is worth a top 10 pick. and I dont really think Minkah is a scheme fit/positional need (unless Bucs brass is 100% confident he can play outside CB) So for me the 3 best options are (in no particular order): Trade up to secure Barkely or Chubb. Stay put and grab Nelson Trade down Rate this item:Thumb UpThumb DownSubmit Rating00 No votes… Read more »

MudManVA
2 years ago

This draft should be focused on defense as the Bucs have huge holes on the line & secondary. The only exception pick should be RB in the 2nd or 3rd round. (Praying for Sony) Don’t reach just maneuver to set the picks up. The Bucs are drafts (yes drafts-plural) away from really filling holes with young talent, and unfortunately time is not on Koetter & Licht’s side. PR points that out every year. I’m a Licht guy and truly believe he’ll get the talent where it needs to be, but this team needs play makers on defense (outside of its… Read more »

matador
2 years ago
Reply to  MudManVA

Licht has had four drafts already yet as you note we are multiple drafts away. That timeline is exactly re reason we should be overemphasizing the lines (OL as well as DL) this draft and potentially the next one. Winston is young build the team for the long term. The team and owners and fans have time, it’s not our fault if the GM sealed his own fate with poor, sometimes idiotic draft day moves and bad free agent shopping habits. Build from the inside out this is not fantasy football. Rate this item:Thumb UpThumb DownSubmit Rating00 No votes yet.… Read more »

Bucsfan1983
2 years ago

* Correction SR, Derwin James can bench press 450

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surferdudes
2 years ago

Fab 2, yes stay away from free agents who are let go from their teams for any reason other then becoming a cap casualty. Stay away from players that are over 30 just for a quick fix unless they’re willing to play for vet minimum on a one year deal. I can’t believe Seattle is looking for someone to trade for Bennett, and more stunned fans want him back. I hope Licht isn’t stupid enough to trade for a player he let go of years ago. Fab 3, as for saying the Bucs have had more luck with small school… Read more »

athans5
2 years ago

I normally love your Fab 5s SR, but this one was painful to read. Your mentality is the same reason the Bucs have been mediocre for so long. Why are you holding Talibs troubled past against him, has he been in any trouble since the Bucs days? He learned how to study film and is actually one of the best route recognition corners in the nfl, right up there with Sherman. He could teach our youth how to study film and anticipate routes. Remember after he picked Winston twice, he said he knew what routes were coming, that is film… Read more »

XpfcWintergreen2
2 years ago
Reply to  athans5

Let’s see! Aqib Talib played for five years with the Bucs, two years with the Pats and four years with the Broncos. Outside troubles behind him. (?) He had 31 TKL, 7 PDEF and 1 INT for the 2017 season.

How much would he co$t the Bucs for one year? Why not ?

https://www.foxsports.com/nfl/aqib-talib-player-stats
_____________
Go Bucs!!!!

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vtrantb
2 years ago

I’ve been advocating for the Bucs to consider drafting UCF CB Mike Hughes in the 2nd round. He might not make it out of the first round. The guy is a lock down corner, runs sub 4.4, and is probably the best returner in college.

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vtrantb
2 years ago

Hughes had a 95 yard kickoff return in the last minute of the game to beat USF in that classic game last year

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cgmaster27
2 years ago

Bucs looking for right fit in free agency? Apparently a 27 year old DE that would fill a need isn’t the right fit for the Bucs. And Quinn was gone for a mid round pick. I”m a big Licht fan, but this is inexcusable.

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macabee
2 years ago
Reply to  cgmaster27

cg, the Bucs are 70mil over the cap, the Dolphins are 8mil under the cap. Be interesting to see how they handle this and get over the cap by the 12th of March – gotta be some massive cuts coming. If the Bucs were not aware (friend called a friend), I understand. But if they had the chance and walked away, that would be inexcusable. #JMO.

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cgmaster27
2 years ago
Reply to  macabee

Got a good point Mac as maybe this trade was predicated on Quin going to an AFC team. We don’t know, but gees, I would hope that this is one Licht didn’t pass up on.

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Alldaway 2.0
2 years ago

This is concerning. The last time there was talk about the right fit of players there was a mass exodus of talent during the Schiano era. For example, Bucs went from a young WR corps with promise pre-Schiano to nothing and a cloud of dust outside of Vincent Jackson. Also like the Schiano era, there was an overemphasis of building the defense from the back to the front and too much stunting. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Bucs haven’t made the playoffs since Gruden was coach because of a lack of talent. Even in the playoff loss against the Giants the… Read more »

ehinote
2 years ago

Sony Michel will have the best draft value as a running back after all is said and done. The Bucs should draft the Notre Dame guard or the Washington DT in the 1st round and then grab Michel in the 2nd. He can do it all and has shown to be very durable.

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jshea7
2 years ago

Living in Ohio, ive been listening to a lot of fox sports radio, and i’ve heard multiple times from multiple hosts that this is going to be one of the worst free agencies as far as talent goes! I hope the bucs do not waste a lot of money on free agents. Play low ball and do not give too much money to a guy that is good but not GREAT just to fill a need! DE is not deep this year in free agency.. Build within the draft, pay the core players we have on the roster, and let… Read more »